Ray Blanton, Part 5

Ray Blanton, Part 5

By Ray Hill

Ray Blanton had achieved his long sought after goal of winning statewide office in Tennessee with his victory in the 1974 general election. Blanton had defeated Republican Lamar Alexander decisively in winning the governorship.

Ray Blanton had always campaigned as a populist, putting together a coalition that encompassed traditional Democratic voting blocs. Blanton’s election stalled the momentum of Tennessee Republicans, who had won a sweeping victory in the 1972 elections. Not only had the Democrats managed to win back the governor’s office in 1974, but had brought down two GOP congressmen, LaMar Baker in the Third District and Dan Kuykendall in Memphis.

Despite his populist rhetoric and talk of honesty and political morals, Ray Blanton would preside over perhaps the most corrupt regime in Tennessee history. Blanton himself would rule in a largely autocratic fashion.

Throughout his tenure as governor, Blanton’s drinking would escalate and he did little to hide his fondness for women other than his wife. Governor Blanton did have some solid successes as Tennessee’s chief executive. It was Ray Blanton who created the Department of Tourism and the governor made an effort to encourage investment in Tennessee by foreign companies and corporations, providing Tennesseans with jobs. Blanton’s Department of Tourism was the first such department of its kind in the entire country.

Governor Blanton traveled the world at least three times and while his critics questioned his lavish expenditures, no one could deny the avid interest of Japanese, German and British companies interested in investing in Tennessee. Governor Blanton even managed to entice the United Nations General Assembly to Nashville for a day. Blanton’s first world trip resulted in a $10 million investment by the German firm Mahle, Inc. in a manufacturing facility in Morristown, Tennessee.

The governor, working with Tennessee’s legislature, helped to modernize Tennessee’s retirement system, making it one of the most fiscally sound in the country. Governor Blanton provided tax relief for Tennessee’s senior citizens and promoted programs beneficial to blacks as well as promoting programs for the equality of women.

Under Blanton, unemployment in Tennessee dropped from 9.6% to 5.6%. More than 64,000 new jobs came to Tennessee. There were 1,100 new or expanded plants, which represented some $2 billion in capital investment in Tennessee. Tennessee’s farm exports climbed to 52 under Governor Blanton’s administration. Blanton’s new Department of Tourism was also paying dividends; by 1977 Tennessee welcomed 5.5 million new tourists in the state.

Blanton was a night owl, oftentimes not going to bed before 3:00 a.m. and working the telephone until he fell asleep. The governor’s aides found the perfect time to approach Blanton was sometime after 10:00 p.m.

Ever partisan, Ray Blanton would look at his dog, Saki, and ask, “Do you want to be dead or be a Republican?” The dog would instantly play dead.

Tennessee’s Constitution was modernized as well and Ray Blanton became the first governor eligible to seek a second four-year term. Blanton would fritter away that opportunity before his first term had concluded.

Governor Blanton presided in office as an old-time Democrat, making no effort whatever to hide the importance of his patronage committee, which existed in every county in Tennessee. Democrats were eager to put out Republicans hired by the administration of Winfield Dunn. The contrast between the former governor and his successor would become more deeply etched in the minds of thousands of Tennesseans as Blanton presided over state government. The courtly and gentlemanly Dunn, scrupulously honest, was the antithesis of Ray Blanton. Modishly and well dressed, Blanton was frequently coarse, vulgar, petulant, and imperious.

Democrats improved their electoral success, carrying Tennessee for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and defeating Senator Bill Brock in 1976. In fact, Tennessee was Carter’s second best state in the country after his own native Georgia.

Governor Blanton could still show the folksy side of his nature, besting country music singer Lynn Anderson (I Never Promised You A Rose Garden) in a milking contest. Blanton also kept another country music star, Faron Young, from being extradited to Oklahoma to face charges in the Sooner State. Ray Blanton led a crowd in a rousing rendition of Gimme That Old-Time Religion while attending a Governor’s Conference on Aging.

Yet there was the unpleasant side of Ray Blanton that came out as time passed. The governor had racked up a $300 telephone bill from Tokyo to a woman in Washington, D. C. Married and the father of three children, the governor adamantly refused to answer questions about the nature of his relationship with that particular woman. Later, Blanton and several aides reimbursed the State of Tennessee $21,000 for personal telephone calls, rentals for limousine service, and liquor bills.

When one reporter pressed Blanton, the governor snarled, “Do you want a eunuch or some third-generation scion of a rich family who doesn’t understand the problems of the poor?”

Blanton’s relations with the news media, never especially good, continued to deteriorate throughout his time as governor. When Blanton bought three radio stations, he pointedly said his radio stations would only report “good news.” Governor Blanton began refusing to answer questions at his press conferences that he considered to be negative. The governor insisted he would reply to “positive questions.”

The governor had a fondness for scotch and would amuse his visitors to the governor’s mansion by lining up inmate trusties and demanding they tell his guests precisely what crime they had committed.

The pardon and clemency scandals were hardly the first to plague Ray Blanton’s administration. Real Estate Commissioner Don Harding had been driven from office and was later convicted on two counts of extortion. General Services Commissioner Charles Bell and G. B. McCarter left office following a scandal involving surplus cars. McCarter later pleaded guilty to two counts of embezzlement. Transportation Commissioner Eddie Shaw was indicted, although later acquitted. Shaw promptly gifted every juror in his case with a country ham.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal declared Ray Blanton was the “hillbilly Nixon.”

Through it all, Blanton remained defiant.

Blanton said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m just like the plowshare that my grandfather taught me to sharpen with the forge and a hammer. The more you hit, the harder you beat, the harder I get… Now, I can stand the beat.”

Blanton managed to hold his considerable temper when he was hit in the face by a University of Tennessee student in Chattanooga with a lemon meringue pie. Photos of the governor, his face dripping with meringue, appeared in most every Tennessee newspaper.

By 1977, rumors were circulating there were problems with the Blanton administration. Those rumors seemed to have some fact in basis when the governor suddenly fired Marie Ragghianti, who Blanton had appointed to serve as the Chair of Tennessee’s Board of Pardons and Paroles. Reporters immediately began digging and discovered the cause of Ragghianti’s abrupt firing was her refusal to release select prisoners. As it turned out, members of Governor Blanton’s administration had been bribed to release many of those same prisoners.

Ragghianti hired Nashville attorney Fred Thompson, who had served as Senator Howard Baker’s counsel during the famed Watergate Hearings. Marie Ragghinait won a settlement from the State of Tennessee and a later best-selling book by author Peter Maas detailed much of her story.

By 1978, it was readily apparent even to Ray Blanton he could not win a second term as governor. Jake Butcher won the Democratic nomination while Lamar Alexander was making his second bid to become Tennessee’s governor. Four years previously, Alexander’s candidacy had been crippled by the Watergate scandal; in 1978 Lamar Alexander was aided by the growing scandal surrounding Ray Blanton. Despite being outspent by Jake Butcher, Alexander won a solid victory.

As Blanton’s time in office grew short, the governor stubbornly persisted with his self-destructive behavior. By December of 1978, the FBI was teeming all over the Nashville Capitol and three Blanton administration officials were arrested, including T. Edward Sisk, Counsel to the Governor. Ray Blanton was called to testify to a grand jury just before Christmas and the governor stoutly denied any personal wrongdoing.

More rumors circulated that Governor Blanton was planning to pardon even more prisoners, a notion that galvanized the FBI, U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, and much of the leadership of Tennessee’s General Assembly.

Governor Blanton was preparing to sign the pardon papers of Roger Humphreys, who was the son of a patronage chieftain in East Tennessee. Roger Humphreys was also a double murderer, having shot his wife and her lover with a two shot derringer – – – eighteen times. As Blanton sat at his desk, pen poised over the papers, the governor looked up and told Tennessee Secretary of State Gentry Crowell, “This takes guts.”

“Yeah, well, some people have more guts than brains,” Crowell snapped back.

Tennesseans horrified and disgusted by Blanton’s actions were amused when the radio airwaves were flooded with a parody song, Pardon me, Ray, sung to the tune of the Chattanooga Choo Choo. A Nashville television weatherman, Brian Christie, recorded the song, which became an immediate hit just after Blanton was driven out of office three days before his term of office was set to expire.

Fearful Blanton would either commute or pardon other criminals, Speaker of the House Ned Ray McWherter and Lieutenant Governor John Wilder agreed to the early swearing-in of governor-elect Lamar Alexander.

“It could be called a ceremonial impeachment,” John Wilder mused.

Robert Lillard, Special Counsel to the governor, was stopped by aides to Alexander when he tried to enter Ray Blanton’s office toting a sheaf of clemency papers. Lillard was a former judge who had been acquitted of similar pay-for-clemency charges during a previous administration.

Blanton snarled he had left the governor’s office “poor” and was cornered by the news media as he left his newly purchased Nashville home, which was across the street from country music star Webb Pierce’s own home. Blanton complained he was upset at having been barred from his own office and was especially angry at not having been able to retrieve the desk and chair he had brought back from Washington, D. C. as a member of Congress. The former governor snapped his early ouster was nothing less than a “clandestine activity.”

Powerful Democrats in Nashville noted the change in Blanton’s demeanor and character during his term of office as governor.

“Ray used to be humble, meek,” Lieutenant Governor John Wilder remembered. “He was in tune with people. He never wanted to master. Somehow, somewhere, as governor that changed.”

Gentry Crowell seemed to have trouble stringing words together to describe the former governor, so profound was his dismay. “Arrogant,” Crowell growled. “Stubborn…stupid.”

Although never convicted of selling pardons and profiting personally, Ray Blanton’s legal troubles were just beginning. In 1981, Blanton found himself in court and was convicted of conspiracy charges, mail fraud and extortion for selling liquor licenses. Ray Blanton was sentenced to twenty-two months in a federal prison. Blanton was convicted of a scheme of forcing the liquor store owners to turn over 30% of the profits.

After getting out of prison, Ray Blanton fought fiercely to piece together his tattered reputation. Eventually, nine of the charges against him were overturned by a federal court.

Nor had Ray Blanton entirely given up his political ambitions. When Congressman Ed Jones retired in 1988, the former governor entered the Democratic primary to succeed him. On May 21, 1988, Ray Blanton officially declared his candidacy for Congress. Just a few weeks later, Blanton married Karen Flint in Washington, D. C., at the Democratic Club. The tuxedo clad former governor gave a thumbs up when asked how the wedding went. Blanton would give no other comment to waiting reporters. The former governor and his wife, Betty, had been divorced since 1987 and he had known Ms. Flint since she had worked for the Appalachian Regional Commission in the 1970s.

Ray Blanton’s congressional campaign never really got off the ground. The eventual winner, State Representative John Tanner, won the Democratic nomination with better than 66% of the vote. Blanton won just over 10% of the ballots cast and spent the last years of his life working as a salesman at a Ford dealership in Henderson, Tennessee.

The former governor began to seriously ail and entered Jackson-Madison County Hospital to await a liver transplant. It was while waiting for the liver transplant that Ray Blanton died on November 22, 1996.

Ray Blanton’s remains were carried to the Shiloh Church and he was buried there; eventually, an impressive obelisk would be placed on the site of his burial. Blanton was sixty-six years old.

Former governor Ray Blanton never managed to clear his name and his legacy remains a trail of corruption.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login